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The two-month race to the divisional playoffs of the Division I Men’s Club Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC) begins this Saturday. The teams from Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and North Carolina have been ramping up their preparation for the upcoming season by playing top collegiate sides and clubs from the American Rugby Premiership.
The last couple of weeks of the preseason have come with mixed results for the MAC. Schuylkill River lost to Old Blue, 50-16, Rocky Gorge triumphed over NYAC, 36-33, Norfolk tied Navy, 29-29, and Baltimore-Chesapeake trounced NOVA, 50-10, in a fall make-up game. Twenty-seven divisional games now commence to determine who earns their spot in the playoffs.
With only the top four teams eligible for the semifinals on May 7th, Schuylkill River, Rocky Gorge, Baltimore-Chesapeake, and Norfolk are currently in the driver’s seat with Potomac and Pittsburgh on the outside looking in. Six standing points separate the top four clubs and the other two are not far behind.
At 6-2, the Schuylkill River Exiles lead the division with 31 standing points. The Exiles only two losses have been to Rocky Gorge and Norfolk, but lead the division with seven bonus try points. Since the loss to Gorge in November, Schuylkill has reeled off two straight wins.
Last weekend, the Exiles ventured north and were defeated by ARP’s Old Blue, 50-16. Looking to shake the rust off and get minutes against a quality side, coach Bill Jalbert said, “We made mistakes and Old Blue is really good at capitalizing on those mistakes... We really got focused in the second half and pulled some things together that were sloppy in the first half. It was fitness that really hurt us. Old Blue is in such good shape, they just ran us around the park in the second half.”
“We scheduled this match [against Old Blue] to get an assessment of where we are,” Jalbert added. “We’ve got Boston coming down next weekend for the same reason. We wanted to schedule some high level competition to really test ourselves. I know the one thing we are really going to have to ramp up is our fitness.” As coach said, Schuylkill welcomes the Boston Rugby Club to Philadelphia this weekend and the first division game is on March 19th against Rocky Gorge.
For the undefeated Rocky Gorge, the DI newcomer is 6-0 and is two standing points behind the frontrunner. With eight games on the slate, Rocky Gorge will be the busiest team in the Mid-Atlantic this spring. Gorge will endure the toughest stretch of the spring right out of the gate at Norfolk this weekend, at home versus Schuylkill River, then back-to-back games against Baltimore-Chesapeake.
Rocky Gorge’s only preseason match was last Saturday against the defending DI National Champions and ARP contender, NYAC. Both teams were not at full strength, but played inspired rugby in a great game where Gorge came from behind to win 36-33. Gorge survived a three-try match from USA Eagle Seamus Kelly with tries from Cordell Drummond, Nick Sylor, Nick DiMichele, Josh Brown, and Emery Pressman. USA Junior All-American savior Ben Cima was four for five conversions and slotted a penalty kick.
Gorge head coach Nick DiMichele said key to the win was “the tenacity and ability to match NYAC physically. We are not a big team so we have to be persistent in the battle up front... This was our only pre-season match and when you play a team like NYAC, they’re going to poke holes in you and they did. Now we can go back to work, patch them up and get better.”
Gorge is looking to take one game at a time with first on the road to the Blues. “Norfolk is a big strong club,” DiMichele remarked. “We need to match them up front, work our defensive system, and make our one on ones. They are a good group of guys and through the Capital Selects, our players are very familiar with each other, so it should shake out to be a very hard-nosed game.”
With Tuesday’s 50-10 win over NOVA, Baltimore-Chesapeake has slid into third place with a 5-3 record and 27 standing points. The match was a make up game from the fall and the Brumbies dominated from start to finish. Scrumhalf Colby Buss had a hat trick, eightman Tyler Barberi had two tries, and John Sharkey and Chris Moylan each finished with one apiece. Fullback Billy Trentzsch and reserve Pat Foley combined for six conversions and a PK.
In the fall, the Brumbies struggled against teams with winning records and easily handled lesser competition. They will have their work cut out for them in the next few weeks with Old Blue coming to Baltimore this weekend, a bye the next week, and then play Rocky Gorge twice on consecutive Saturdays. Only one of its remaining divisional opponents has a losing record, so Baltimore-Chesapeake is hoping it has righted the ship and can hold onto a playoff spot.
In the wake of ending the fall on a two game losing streak at 5-2, the Norfolk Blues focused the winter on fitness, strength, camaraderie, and playing to their pattern. When asked about what he learned from the fall, head coach Chris Porter said, “I learned that you can’t sit on anybody, you have to be ready to play every weekend, and you have to ready to play an 80 minute game. There are times you can put together a good 60 and hold on, but nowadays that’s not going to work. You need to play a full 80 minutes to win against all the clubs throughout the union.”
In an attempt to brush off the cobwebs from the winter, the Blues played in its annual contest against the U.S. Naval Academy. Norfolk had to fight for a 29-29 tie as they trailed late in the match. Flanker Eric Hagen had three tries, wing Herman Sandoval had one, and flyhalf Johnny Cameron finished with three conversions and a PK. “We tied them,” Porter stated, “but I liked the way the guys played our gameplan, they stuck to it, and it really showed that the guys played better and weren’t as worn out. I was happy with how it came out.”
Focus for Norfolk has shifted to Rocky Gorge on Saturday. “They play so well together and they’ve been together so long, so we know they are going to be everywhere together,” Porter commented. “Ben Cima is definitely the key to everything with how well he kicks, when he pushes them up, and how he sets up all the runners. Then you have to try to deal with Josh [Brown] and Dustin [Meehan] in the back row and Matias [Cima] and Nick Kuhl in the backs. It’s going to be a big challenge for us and we are looking forward to our guys to step up to it.”
The two teams looking to gain ground and hope for slippage at the top are the Potomac Exiles (4-3, 21 points) and the Pittsburgh Harlequins (3-5, 19 points). Potomac, the defending MAC Champions, play all four leaders in successive weeks starting on April 9th to close out the season. They have the potential to shake up the standings if everyone can pull together and be the team that won the conference in 2015.
As for Pittsburgh, the Harlequins are the wildcard with their crop of flying islanders and high scoring offense. If they can field a consistent 23 each weekend and build momentum, there is a possibility to slingshot into the top four. Whatever happens, it should be an entertaining two months.